[ G.R. No. 240475, July 24, 2019 ]
JONATHAN DE GUZMAN Y AGUILAR, PETITIONER, V. PEOPLE OF THE PHILIPPINES, RESPONDENT.
D E C I S I O N
This Court resolves a Petition for Review on Certiorari under Rule 45 of the 1997 Rules of Civil Procedure, praying that the Court of Appeals' March 21, 2018 Decision and July 5, 2018 Resolution in CA-G.R. CR No. 40017 be reversed and set aside, and that a new Decision be rendered acquitting Jonathan De Guzman y Aguilar (De Guzman) of the charge of illegal possession of a firearm.
In its assailed Decision, the Court of Appeals affirmed with modification the March 1, 2017 Decision of the Regional Trial Court, Branch 114, Pasay City convicting De Guzman. It subsequently denied his Motion for Reconsideration in its assailed July 5, 2018 Resolution.
In an Information, De Guzman was charged with illegal possession of a firearm, or of violating Republic Act No. 10591, otherwise known as the Comprehensive Firearms and Ammunition Regulation Act. The Information read:
That on or about the 22nd day of October 2014, in Pasay City, Philippines, and within the jurisdiction of this Honorable Court, the above-named accused, with intent to possess, did then and there willfully, unlawfully and feloniously have in his possession, custody and control One (1) Smith and Wesson Caliber .38 Revolver (Marked "JAD-1") loaded with Four live [ammunition] (Marked "JAM-2" to ["]JAM-5") (sic) without the necessary license and/or authority to possess the same.
Contrary to law. (Citation omitted)
On arraignment, De Guzman pleaded not guilty to the crime charged Trial followed.
The prosecution presented its lone witness, Senior Police Officer 1 Ador Estera (SPO1 Estera), who testified as follows:
At around 4:00 p.m. on October 22, 2014, he and nine (9) other police officers were on patrol along Taft Avenue, Libertad, Pasay City. As they were approaching the White House Market, they noticed that people were running away from it. They went to investigate and saw a revolver-wielding man, whom they later identified as De Guzman, shouting as though quarreling with someone. They rushed to De Guzman and introduced themselves as police officers. SPO1 Estera told De Guzman to put down the gun, to which he complied. After picking up the gun, SPO1 Estera asked De Guzman if he had a license to possess it, but De Guzman kept mum. SPO1 Estera then handcuffed and frisked De Guzman, discovering in his possession a sachet of suspected shabu.
SPO1 Estera then brought De Guzman to the Pasay City Police Station and referred him to SPO3 Allan V. Valdez (SPO3 Valdez) for further investigation. In SPO3 Valdez's presence, SPO1 Estera marked the revolver with De Guzman's initials, "JAD-1." It was then that the officer found four (4) live ammunition rounds, which he marked as "JAD-2" to "JAD-5." He also marked the sachet of suspected shabu as "JAD." SPO1 Estera then turned the seized items over to SPO3 Valdez.
De Guzman was separately charged with illegal possession of a firearm and illegal possession of dangerous drugs. The case for illegal possession of a firearm was raffled to the Regional Trial Court, Branch 114, Pasay City, while the case for illegal possession of dangerous drugs was raffled to the Regional Trial Court, Branch 110, Pasay City.
The defense alleged an entirely different version of events. It emphasized, first, that De Guzman was arrested on October 21, 2014, not on October 22, 2014. It then explained that on October 21, 2014, De Guzman and his sister, Jessica, were dressing chicken to sell at the public market. While they were taking a break at around 4:00 p.m., 10 men in civilian clothes arrived, as though looking for something. Among them, SPO1 Estera, as De Guzman later identified, approached De Guzman and asked him why he had knives. De Guzman replied that he used them for dressing chickens to be sold at the public market. SPO1 Estera then asked De Guzman if they had a mayor's permit, to which De Guzman replied that since they merely operated a small business, they did not obtain such a permit.
Calling De Guzman's reply "bastos," an angry SPO1 Estera pulled out his gun and pointed it at him. At gunpoint, De Guzman begged SPO1 Estera for forgiveness. However, SPO1 Estera took De Guzman's knives and ordered him to lie on his stomach. He then frisked De Guzman, but he found nothing. As SPO1 Estera's companions arrived, SPO1 Estera told them that he was arresting De Guzman for having the knives in his possession. De Guzman was then brought to the Pasay City Police Station.
There, SPO1 Estera allegedly demanded P300,000.00 from De Guzman lest he be charged with illegal possession of a firearm and illegal possession of dangerous drugs. Unable to produce the amount demanded by SPO1 Estera, De Guzman was formally charged with the threatened offenses.
In testifying for his defense, De Guzman noted that he did not personally know SPO1 Estera. He recalled, however, that about a month prior to his arrest, he won a P50,000.00 cockfight bet against SPO1 Estera. He added that, after collecting his winnings, a "kristo" at the cockfighting arena told him that SPO1 Estera had asked for De Guzman's name and where he worked. The kristo admitted to telling SPO1 Estera that De Guzman had a stall at the White House Market.
De Guzman also expressed perplexity at his supposedly carrying a .38 caliber revolver. He admitted to owning a firearm, a .45 caliber Amscor, which was covered by Firearm License No. 1222309512278865 and Permit to Carry Control No. JAD-1210006530. He presented as evidence both his Firearm License and Permit to Carry, along with a March 16, 2016 Certification showing that he was indeed a licensed firearm holder. He emphasized that there was no point in him carrying around an unlicensed firearm when he had a licensed gun.
De Guzman's sister, Jessica, testified to corroborate De Guzman's version of events.
In a March 1, 2017 Decision, the Regional Trial Court, Branch 114, Pasay City convicted De Guzman. According to it, the presentation during trial of a .38 caliber revolver and ammunition, coupled with SPO1 Estera's identification of them as the same items obtained from De Guzman, established the elements for conviction of the charge of illegal possession of a firearm. It added that, in any case, De Guzman himself admitted to not having a license to own, possess, or carry a .38 caliber revolver or ammunition.
The dispositive portion of the Regional Trial Court Decision read:
WHEREFORE, in view of the foregoing, the Court finds accused JONATHAN DE GUZMAN y AGUILAR a.k.a. "Jojo" GUILTY beyond reasonable doubt of Violation of R.A. No. 10591 (Comprehensive Firearms and Ammunition Regulation Act) and hereby sentences him to suffer the minimum penalty of imprisonment of eight (8) years and one (1) day to eight (8) years and eight (8) months of prision mayor in its medium period.
The firearm and [ammunition] subject matter of this case is declared forfeited in favor of the government and ordered to be turned over to the Firearms and Explosive Unit, [Philippine] National Police, Camp Crame, Quezon City for its appropriate disposition.
Aggrieved, De Guzman appealed before the Court of Appeals. He maintained that the gun and ammunition presented against him were merely "planted evidence."
In its assailed March 21, 2018 Decision, the Court of Appeals affirmed De Guzman's conviction with modification. As with the Regional Trial Court, the Court of Appeals lent credence to the prosecution's evidence, particularly to SPO1 Estera's recollection of events.
The dispositive portion of the assailed Court of Appeals Decision read:
WHEREFORE, premises considered, the appeal is hereby DENIED. The Decision dated September 2, 2016 (sic) of the Regional Trial Court, Branch 13, Laoag City (sic) is AFFIRMED with MODIFICATION in that accused-appellant Jonathan De Guzman y Aguilar a.k.a. "Jojo" is sentenced to suffer imprisonment of eight (8) years and one (1) day of prision mayor, as minimum, to ten (10) years, eight (8) months, and one (1) day of prision mayor, as maximum.
SO ORDERED. (Citation omitted)
In the interim, the Regional Trial Court, Branch 110, Pasay City rendered a Decision on April 3, 2018, acquitting De Guzman of the charge of illegal possession of dangerous drugs. It reasoned that the subsequent search on De Guzman, which supposedly yielded a sachet of shabu, was not founded on a prior lawful arrest for illegal possession of a firearm. It noted that De Guzman was not proven to have carried a firearm—which would have justified his initial arrest—but merely had "knives which he used in his occupation in selling dressed chicken." Without a prior lawful arrest, the trial court ruled that the subsequent frisking that allegedly yielded the sachet of shabu was an invalid search. The allegedly seized sachet was, thus, a proverbial "fruit of the poisonous tree" that is inadmissible in evidence. Without proof of the actual narcotics allegedly obtained from De Guzman, his acquittal followed.
Aggrieved by the Court of Appeals' March 21, 2018 Decision convicting him of illegal possession of a firearm, De Guzman filed a Motion for Reconsideration, but the Court of Appeals denied this in its July 5, 2018 Resolution.
Thus, De Guzman filed this Petition.
For this Court's resolution is the issue of whether or not petitioner Jonathan De Guzman y Aguilar is guilty beyond reasonable doubt of violating Republic Act No. 10591, or the Comprehensive Firearms and Ammunition Regulation Act.
It was a serious error for the Court of Appeals to affirm petitioner's conviction.
Proof beyond reasonable doubt is imperative to sustain a conviction in criminal cases. Rule 133, Section 2 of the Revised Rules on Evidence provides:
SECTION 2. Proof beyond reasonable doubt. — In a criminal case, the accused is entitled to an acquittal, unless his guilt is shown beyond reasonable doubt. Proof beyond reasonable doubt does not mean such a degree of proof as, excluding possibility of error, produces absolute certainty. Moral certainty only is required, or that degree of proof which produces conviction in an unprejudiced mind.
This requisite quantum of proof is borne by the constitutional imperative of due process. It is also in keeping with the presumption of innocence of an accused until the contrary is proved. While proof beyond reasonable doubt does not demand absolute, impeccable, and infallible certainty, it still requires moral certainty. In People v. Que:
Moral certainty only is required, or that degree of proof which produces conviction in an unprejudiced mind. The conscience must be satisfied that the accused is responsible for the offense charged.
Proof beyond reasonable doubt imposes upon the prosecution the burden of proving an accused's guilt through the strength of its own evidence. The prosecution cannot merely capitalize on the defense's supposed weaknesses. "[U]nless it discharges [its] burden[,] the accused need not even offer evidence in his [or her] behalf, and he [or she] would be entitled to an acquittal."
To sustain convictions for illegal possession of firearms, the prosecution must show two (2) essential elements: (1) that the firearm subject of the offense exists; and (2) that the accused who possessed or owned that firearm had no corresponding license for it.
The Regional Trial Court was quick to conclude that the first element was shown merely when the prosecution presented a .38 caliber revolver and ammunition, and had them identified by SPO1 Estera. Offering nothing but a singular paragraph as reasoning, it stated:
In the instant case, the prosecution proved beyond reasonable doubt the elements of the crime. The subject firearm and ammunitions recovered from the accused were duly presented to the Court and identified by SPO1 Estera, the one who arrested the accused. The same were marked as Exhibits "C" and "D" to "D-4".
On the second element, the Regional Trial Court noted not only a Certification issued by the Firearms and Explosive Division of the Philippine National Police belying petitioner's license or registration to possess, but also petitioner's own declaration that he had no such license to possess a .38 caliber revolver:
[A]ccused even admitted in his testimony that he has no license to own, possess or carry any caliber .38 or ammunition which are the subject matter of this case.
For its part, when it sustained petitioner's conviction, the Court of Appeals faulted the defense for failing to present witnesses other than petitioner's sister to support its version of events, pointing out that her testimony was bound to be biased. In the same vein, it condoned the prosecution's reliance on nothing more than SPO1 Estera's testimony, explaining that corroborating testimonies may be dispensed with since there was no basis to suspect that SPO1 Estera "twisted the truth, or that his . . . observation was inaccurate."
The Regional Trial Court's reasoning and the Court of Appeals' sustaining it place far too much faith in the lone prosecution witness' flimsy, self-serving posturing. They come from a misplaced emphasis on the defense's supposed weakness and, ultimately, fail to appreciate what proof beyond reasonable doubt demands.
Proving its version of events beyond reasonable doubt made it necessary for the prosecution to present evidence that not only trumped that of the defense, but even addressed all the glaring loopholes in its own claims. It was, therefore, inadequate for it to have relied on the single testimony of the police officer whose credibility had been put into question not only with respect to the veracity and accuracy of his version of events leading to petitioner's arrest, but even with respect to a supposed prior vendetta against petitioner, and an attempt to extort from him. It was the prosecution's duty to show that its version of events deserves credence, the inadequacies of SPO1 Estera notwithstanding. It abandoned the chance to discharge this duty when it declined to present other witnesses to buttress the claims of its single, grossly flawed witness.
This is not to say that petitioner's own allegations against SPO1 Estera are all true. Still, the requisite of moral certainty demanded that petitioner's reservations against SPO1 Estera be addressed. In what amounted to a contest between two (2) vastly different accounts, the standard of proof beyond reasonable doubt could not have been met by the prosecution by wagering its case on no one but SPO1 Estera.
The prosecution could have presented the testimonies of disinterested witnesses to prove and expound on the different facets of its narrative: (1) the fleeing of people from the market; (2) petitioner's going amok or apparent quarrel with another person; (3) the police officer's pacification of petitioner; (4) petitioner's delivery to the police station; and (5) the turnover to SPO3 Valdez and SPO3 Valdez's own investigation. It never bothered to do so. Instead, it saw it fit to rely on no one but the same person who is also alleged to have extorted from an unwitting seller at a public market.
It is not for this Court or any other tribunal to impose technique on or to suggest strategy to a party. However, as we are now compelled to grapple with the sufficiency of a lone witness' testimony and ascertain if the lower courts were right to take that, and that alone, as enough to convict, our attention is drawn to how the prosecution's evidence is egregiously wanting. The prosecution's manifest deficiencies themselves cannot help but draw attention to how the prosecution could have proceeded more judiciously and how the lower courts have themselves been so credulous.
It was also an error for the Regional Trial Court to say that petitioner's own declaration that he had no license to own, possess, or carry a .38 caliber revolver was enough to establish the second element for conviction. This is not merely an inordinate reliance on what is wrongly seen as the defense's weakness, but an outright distortion of what petitioner meant when he said he had no such license.
Petitioner declared that he had a .45 caliber Amscor, covered by Firearm License No. 1222309512278865 and Permit to Carry Control No. JAD-1210006530. He presented both of these documents in court, along with a March 16, 2016 Certification stating that he was indeed a licensed firearm holder. Petitioner's point was that he had no reason to brandish an unlicensed firearm when he already had a perfectly legitimate, licensed gun. He was making his own positive assertion, not an admission against interest.
Rather than take petitioner's declaration for what it was, the Regional Trial Court saw it fit to read more into what he said and conclude that he had incriminated himself. It did not only make much of a supposed weakness in the defense; rather, it itself conjured that weakness.
Moreover, the defense noted inconsistencies in the prosecution's version of events. Most notably, it emphasized that petitioner was not even arrested on October 22, 2014, as the Information had alleged. There was also no record on the police station's blotter attesting to the conduct of the patrol that supposedly preceded the arrest. Yet, the Court of Appeals dismissed these inconsistencies as minor details.
However, these inconsistencies are not mere trivial minutiae. The dates of the supposed criminal incidents and of petitioner's ensuing arrest are matters contained in the Information, and are matters that concern no less than an accused's constitutional right to be informed of the charges against him or her. A proper record of police operations would have helped establish the occurrences upon which petitioner's being taken into custody were predicated.
The entire narrative upon which the prosecution rests its case has been compromised by its reliance on a solitary witness whose credibility is itself compromised and by imagined weaknesses in the defense. The added inconsistencies noted by the defense only further weaken the prosecution's position and instill greater doubt on petitioner's guilt.
The Court of Appeals has been grossly inattentive to crucial details. In the opening paragraph of its assailed Decision, while identifying the object of the appeal before it, it referred to a Decision of the "Pasig City" Regional Trial Court, rather than of the Pasay City Regional Trial Court. Moreover, in the dispositive portion—the most crucial, controlling portion of its assailed Decision—rather than properly refer to the March 1, 2017 Decision of the Regional Trial Court, Branch 114, Pasay City, the Court of Appeals instead referred to "[t]he Decision dated September 2, 2016 (sic) of the Regional Trial Court, Branch 13, Laoag City[.] (sic)"
These demonstrated the Court of Appeals' heedlessness, with the latter error being made in no less than the most critical portion of its assailed Decision. While these are not per se badges of an accused's innocence, or points that engender reasonable doubt, they nevertheless raise serious questions on whether the Court of Appeals reviewed the entirety of petitioner's case with the requisite care and diligence consistent with an inquiry on proof beyond reasonable doubt. Such conspicuous gaffes make the Court of Appeals' conclusions on petitioner's guilt even more tenuous.
It is worth emphasizing that petitioner has since been acquitted of the charge of illegal possession of dangerous drugs that had been brought against him along with the charge of illegal possession of a firearm. The case against petitioner for violating the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act was premised on exactly the same facts that are the basis of this case.
In ruling on petitioner's guilt for violating the Comprehensive Dangerous Drugs Act, the Regional Trial Court, Branch 110, Pasay City declared that petitioner's prior arrest had no basis as he "was not in fact carrying a firearm, but knives which he used in his occupation in selling dressed chicken."
In the case before the Regional Trial Court, Branch 110, the facts as asserted by the prosecution were found to be so unreliable as to warrant petitioner's acquittal. While not binding in this case, the trial court's finding still raises the commonsensical question of why the same factual allegations should be the basis of conviction here. The contemporaneous findings of another trial court, which inquired into essentially the same set of facts as those involved here, militate against petitioner's guilt. They highlight the reasonable doubt that the prosecution failed to surmount.
Here, the trial court gave extraordinary weight to the bare assertion of a police officer, who was presented as the only witness to an alleged crime that he himself claimed to have been discovered because of a public disturbance. It trivialized the defense's version of events, despite being more logical. This, coupled with an assertion of the motives of the lone prosecution witness—extortion and getting even after losing a bet—should have been enough to give pause especially because of the fundamental guarantee for every accused to be presumed innocent.
Our courts should be zealously sensitive in protecting our citizens' rights even as we participate in prosecuting and reducing criminality. We should always imagine the predicament of the accused, especially those with very little financial resources who may be faced with an intimidating atmosphere when charged with a crime they did not commit. In such situations, it will only be their word against that of a police officer. They will then only have the conscientiousness and the practical wisdom of a judge to rely upon. That will spell the difference between serving time for a crime they did not commit and witnessing justice being done.
This Court also takes notice and expresses its concern about the haphazard way that the Court of Appeals handled the appeal. Judicial efficiency and speedy justice should not be obtained at the expense of inaccuracy and injustice.
The Court of Appeals should be as concerned with deciding accurately so that this Court will not be flooded with cases where mistakes could have easily been spotted by an appellate court. After all, that is why the Court of Appeals exists: to be the initial forum for appeal so that only policy-determining and transcendental cases reach the highest court.
WHEREFORE, the Petition is GRANTED. The March 21, 2018 Decision and July 5, 2018 Resolution of the Court of Appeals in CA-G.R. CR No. 40017 are REVERSED and SET ASIDE. Petitioner Jonathan De Guzman y Aguilar is ACQUITTED for the prosecution's failure to prove his guilt beyond reasonable doubt.
Peralta (Chairperson), A. Reyes, Jr., Hernando, and Inting, JJ., concur.
September 4, 2019
NOTICE OF JUDGMENT
Sirs / Mesdames:
Please take notice that on July 24, 2019 a Decision, copy attached hereto, was rendered by the Supreme Court in the above-entitled case, the original of which was received by this Office on September 4, 2019 at 4:00 p.m.
Very truly yours,
 Rollo, pp. 8-28.
 Id. at 33-46. The Decision was penned by Associate Justice Ramon R. Garcia, and concurred in by Associate Justices Pedro B. Corales and Germano Francisco D. Legaspi of the Special Thirteenth Division, Court of Appeals, Manila.
 Id. at 30-31. The Resolution was penned by Associate Justice Ramon R. Garcia, and concurred in by Associate Justices Pedro B. Corales and Germano Francisco D. Legaspi of the Former Special Thirteenth Division, Court of Appeals, Manila.
 Id. at 47-51. The Decision was penned by Judge Edwin B. Ramizo.
 Republic Act No. 10591 (2013), sec. 28 provides:
SECTION 28. Unlawful Acquisition, or Possession of Firearms and Ammunition. — The unlawful acquisition, possession of firearms and ammunition shall be penalized as follows:
(a) The penalty of prision mayor in its medium period shall be imposed upon any person who shall unlawfully acquire or possess a small arm; (b) The penalty of reclusion temporal to reclusion perpetua shall be imposed if three (3) or more small arms or Class-A light weapons are unlawfully acquired or possessed by any person; (c) The penalty of prision mayor in its maximum period shall be imposed upon any person who shall unlawfully acquire or possess a Class-A light weapon; (d) The penalty of reclusion perpetua shall be imposed upon any person who shall unlawfully acquire or possess a Class-B light weapon; (e) The penalty of one (1) degree higher than that provided in paragraphs (a) to (c) in this section shall be imposed upon any person who shall unlawfully possess any firearm under any or combination of the following conditions: (1) Loaded with ammunition or inserted with a loaded magazine; (2) Fitted or mounted with laser or any gadget used to guide the shooter to hit the target such as thermal weapon sight (TWS) and the like; (3) Fitted or mounted with sniper scopes, firearm muffler or firearm silencer; (4) Accompanied with an extra barrel; and (5) Converted to be capable of firing full automatic bursts. (f) The penalty of prision mayor in its minimum period shall be imposed upon any person who shall unlawfully acquire or possess a major part of a small arm; (g) The penalty of prision mayor in its minimum period shall be imposed upon any person who shall unlawfully acquire or possess ammunition for a small arm or Class-A light weapon. If the violation of this paragraph is committed by the same person charged with the unlawful acquisition or possession of a small arm, the former violation shall be absorbed by the latter; (h) The penalty of prision mayor in its medium period shall be imposed upon any person who shall unlawfully acquire or possess a major part of a Class-A light weapon; (i) The penalty of prision mayor in its medium period shall be imposed upon any person who shall unlawfully acquire or possess ammunition for a Class-A light weapon. If the violation of this paragraph is committed by the same person charged with the unlawful acquisition or possession of a Class-A light weapon, the former violation shall be absorbed by the latter; (j) The penalty of prision mayor in its maximum period shall be imposed upon any person who shall unlawfully acquire or possess a major part of a Class-B light weapon; and (k) The penalty of prision mayor in its maximum period shall be imposed upon any person who shall unlawfully acquire or possess ammunition for a Class-B light weapon. If the violation of this paragraph is committed by the same person charged with the unlawful acquisition or possession of a Class-B light weapon, the former violation shall be absorbed by the latter.
 Rollo, p. 34.
 Id. at 34-35. In p. 35 of the rollo, the Court of Appeals erroneously referred to Pasay City as Pasig City as the location of the incident.
 Id. at 35.
 Id. at 47 and 52.
 Id. at 36 and 49.
 Id. at 49.
 Id. at 37.
 Id. at 36-37.
 Id. at 47-51.
 Id. at 50.
 Id. at 51.
 Id. at 39.
 Id. at 33-46.
 Id. at 39-45.
 Id. at 46.
 Id. at 52-57.
 Id. at 55.
 Id. at 55-56.
 Id. at 56.
 Id. at 57.
 Id. at 30-31.
 Id. at 8-28.
 People v. Que, G.R. No. 212994, January 31, 2018, 853 SCRA 487, 499-500 [Per J. Leonen, Third Division] citing Macayan, Jr. v. People, 756 Phil. 202, 213-241 (2015) [Per J. Leonen, Second Division]; CONST, art. III, sec. 1; CONST, art. III, sec. 14(2); People v. Solayao, 330 Phil. 811, 819 (1996) [Per J. Romero, Second Division]; and Boac v. People, 591 Phil. 508 (2008) [Per J. Velasco, Jr., Second Division].
 G.R. No. 212994, January 31, 2018, 853 SCRA 487 [Per J. Leonen, Third Division].
 Id. at 500 citing Macayan, Jr. v. People, 756 Phil. 202, 213-241 (2015) [Per J. Leonen, Second Division]; CONST, art. III, sec. 1; CONST, art. III, sec. 14(2); People v. Solayao, 330 Phil. 811, 819 (1996) [Per J. Romero, Second Division]; and Boac v. People, 591 Phil. 508 (2008) [Per J. Velasco, Jr., Second Division].
 People v. Ganguso, 320 Phil. 324, 335 (1995) [Per J. Davide, Jr., First Division].
 Evangelista v. People, 634 Phil. 207, 227 (2010) [Per J. Del Castillo, Second Division] citing People v. Eling, 576 Phil. 665 (2008) [Per J. Chico-Nazario, Third Division].
 Rollo, p. 50.
 Id. at 44-45.
 Id. at 43.
 Id. at 36.
 Id. at 42.
 Id. at 33.
 Id. at 46.
 Id. at 55-56.